The moment I enter another friend’s apartment in Korea is usually a time of burning, roiling jealousy. The apartments my friends live in seem cavernous, nearly monstrous–hulking, beyond-spacious grand cathedrals. I look around at the enormous amount of free space, the storage, the kitchen counters, the presence of more than one room, and I think you could fit a whole family in there. An extended one, with lots of live-in uncles and aunts and in-laws and third cousins. Some of their friends and well-wishers, too. Maybe a few transients. And then I think of my apartment and I begin to plot this friend’s destruction.
Korean one-rooms are generally small, but exactly what modifier you add to “small” is really a matter of luck of the draw. At the high end of the “small” spectrum is that which is technically small, from a warped, North American perspective. This is the “small compared to what I am used to” but which is still, essentially, a spectacularly suitable apartment for a person. It is small by analogue, small by a factor of previous privilege and luxury. At the other end of the range is something resembling the dimensions and comfort of a breadbox.
My apartment is pretty small. I have friends with smaller, dinkier apartments: one moved in and discovered she was able to cook on her stove while laying in bed. My friend Tony lived in a teensy one-room, one where we were still able to meet weekly and film a stop-motion animated film, though it required him to be constantly warped into a yogi pretzel, for Adam to be sitting in the sink, and for me to be mostly in the foyer and somewhat out the front door. By all means, my place is larger than other apartments. On a relative scale, it is not bad.
But it is still dinky. The bathroom has a washing machine in the corner that doesn’t quite reach the wall outlet, and thus I must drape extension cords across its depths while exhaust water guzzles forth from the device’s bowels. I feel certain with every attempt at laundry that something will go amiss, and that my apartment will somehow simultaneously be engulfed in an electrical fire and a flood. There is exactly enough counter space to house a toaster, and never anything else, including the toast once you’ve made it. If I unfold one of my small tables, it becomes functionally impossible to get from one end of the apartment to the other without folding it back up, or simply vaulting over it haphazardly whenever you’re feeling lucky.
On laundry day, my apartment is a laundromat. The drying rack becomes the art piece chandelier in the centre of my apartment, each crisp husk of fabric a gentle swaying crystal candelabra, while everywhere else clothes and towels drape over the backs of chairs, string across random rods or anywhere close to a window. When I cook, the space rapidly fills up with smoke, and even my bed is a kitchen, imbued for days afterwards with the smell of garlic or onions or stew or whatever culinary mishaps I bring myself to endure. If I exercise, it’s all a gym. If I shower, the entire apartment is a bathroom. It is multipurpose in that it has no choice—it is brought by force into crossover utility.
When my cousin came to visit, he looked around the apartment with some degree of wonder. “It looks bigger on the internet,” he remarked, noting that pictures from multiple angles make it appear as though, perhaps, the fridge is not directly beside the futon, as though my desk is not also my kitchen table, or that there is just enough room to pull out the dresser drawers before they slam into the end of the bed.
I have, of course, grown accustomed to one room living. Nothing is ever terribly far from my reach, and heating and air conditioning don’t take much when the actual volume of air to condition is so small. Nothing can ever go burned, because I am within visual distance of the stove at all times. I can’t ignore a mess, because there’s no closet for me to pile away the refuse in. My apartment is entirely immediate, and comfortable in the way that a nicely appointed hamster cage might be. I’ve come to love my pile of woodshavings.
Sometimes, I even grow to appreciate it. I look across my wall of movie posters, or the growing water stains creeping sinisterly from around my window during monsoon season, and I feel a sense of pride. This strange country—this boxy, wing-span-and-a-half land—is mine. I am its owner, its keeper, its protector. I enjoy it. I thrive. I live.
But then I go to a friend’s house.
On the regular I sit in friends’ apartments and slowly seethe at the square footage, the presence of more than a single room. The storage space. The presence of chairs, or a carpet, or, for those precious few, a loft space. I think about how they managed to get this for themselves. Why were they more deserving? Why did the universe deem them worthy of enough room to even fit a staircase, while I squalor away in a box? What had I done? And could I perhaps murder them, assume their identities, and move in unbeknownst?
If I stay at my friends’ apartment in the north, I am often there late talking, eating, drinking. At the end of the evening, Faith and Ty usually tell me not to bother paying for a cab, as the lateness of the hour precludes the subway ride. Why not just sleep in their extra apartment five floors below? I lay in that empty space, this bonus palace that dwarfs my own abode, and stew. I think about taking the cab home just to not suffer the indignity. But then I also stay, because hot damn is it a nice apartment.
Worse still was my visit to China, staying in the sprawling super-mansion of my friends Greg and Agatha. In the ultra-modern outskirts of Suzhou, they shared a three-bedroom, two-bathroom suite with a full, separate kitchen and an enormous balcony. So far removed from the bountiful space of Canada, I was stumped by the sheer ferocity of this space. How could they give so much physical capacity to just two people? It seemed nigh impossible, that there must have been sorcery somehow involved, that different dimensions were ripped open to provide such wide and spread-out comfort. Surely such space was illusory, or demonic in nature, and it was actually a sentient trap trying to feed off of my friends. People didn’t actually live in spaces like this, after all.
But then, I guess some of them do. Just not me.